Wednesday, August 30, 2017

So That's What I Said.

The goal of this blog has always been to look at those things that lie at the intersection of grammar and communication. Usually, I'm not too interested in the theoretical; practical situations are where it’s at for me, and I write about those things that impact our daily lives. I get my ideas from personal interactions, meetings, events, media, and readers.

Today, I want to offer two of my top-ten statements that people make—but don’t actually mean—when communicating. That is, we make these statements even though they may not precisely mean what we want to communicate. Some of these utterances derive from firmly-established idioms that have been modified by usage over the years.

There are many reasons why we use phrases that do not accurately mean what we’re trying to say; two reasons top my list.

First, it’s a habit. We all have habits and tend to repeat those things that we have internalized. So if we’ve been saying something for twenty years, by gosh, we will continue to say it.

Second, if others say it that way, then we tend to say the same thing. If an authority figure—like a public official, a guest on a television show, or someone close to you—says something in a particular way, then you have a key reason to keep on saying that very same thing.

Here are two examples for today.

1. I could care less.

As in: “I could care less about the new Star Wars sequel.”

This is a correct sentence, but it is not used correctly in most cases. Usually when people say something similar to this, they mean “I couldn’t care less.”

There is a big difference between the two. If you “could” care less, that means exactly that—there are situations, in addition to the one you’re talking about right now, where you could care less because right now, you have some care left to give. Most likely, the speaker means that they are so ambivalent about the current situation that they “couldn’t” care less.

Now that we’re warmed up, here is number two.

2. Literally

John: “I literally was about to puke” (pardon the graphic example) or “I literally have a thousand things to do today.”

Let’s assume that John wasn’t really about to puke and that he only had fifty things to do today. The word “literally” means “actually, exactly, or unquestionably”; so this means that John is stretching the truth or exaggerating. I get that, and this is the main point I’m trying to make.

My idea is that if you’re trying to be exact and precise while communicating, what’s the point in sending an exact-opposite message of exaggeration? One suggestion is simple: don’t use “literally” when communicating; that’s right—just leave it out. And don’t even think that substituting its antonym (“figuratively”) is the next best thing to do. In most cases, doing so would sound awkward or clumsy. Just tighten up your sentence and leave it out.

On the other hand, language has evolved, and we have a second route that’s been around over two hundred years. There’s an argument out there in Language Land that the use of “literally” as we have just mentioned is permitted. This would be because no one really believes, for example, that John was about to puke or had a thousand things to do during the day.

Accordingly, you’ll find some stellar authorities advancing the notion that because certain statements are so unbelievable and absurd, that it is acceptable to use the word “literally” if it’s meant to be hyperbole.

How about that? My conclusion is that it’s perfectly fine to use or not use “literally” as just discussed. My first go-to solution would be to leave out the word if including it doesn’t advance the core idea that you’re trying to communicate; don’t say it just because you can. But at the same time, if you want to make a bold statement, exaggerate, or get your point across to someone in a big way, it's ok to use it.

Thanks for your time, and please contact me if you have questions or comments.

Randall Ponder, Baton Rouge, Louisiana USA  

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